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Hieronymus Bosch:  the Renaissance as Imagined by One Who Lived Through ItWool:  Weaving the Prosperity of the Middle AgesTradition:  Not Always Pretty, But It's Who We AreThe Middle Ages:  Better Than You ThinkThe Renaissance:  Not Really All That Fun

May 8th, 2016

Old Family (of Man) Recipies

BY Christian Ford

My family — like yours and like most — has a few “old family recipes.”  One for ham is about a century old and it includes the curious instruction of cutting off both ends of the ham before putting it into the pan.  The truth is, no one knows exactly why we do this, but  it’s how we’ve always done it, so we keep on doing it.

Now hold that thought, and come with me to the distant European past which, as Monte Python movies will tell you, was a grim and filthy place, ruled by ignorance and superstition.  The 1400s, when the Black Death roamed, the Hundred Years War raged and God rarely checked his messages, was also known as the Renaissance, the rebirth of all good things, as the textbooks have it.  So, logically, if that’s what the Renaissance was like, god only knows how terrible the Middle Ages must have been.

But what seems like common sense isn’t always sensical, because what “logic” sometimes moonlights as a kind of (secular) religious allegory.   This allegory, which goes by the name of Progress, (and its confirming miracles in the form of consumer products), insist that things are always getting better; if year A was bad, then A minus 100 years must be worse.

This, however, was not the case.  The soaring gothic cathedrals that rose before the 1400s were not grand exceptions to the norm, but rather the flower of a society that was remarkably good for the majority of its people.  There was enough food for all, modest but important industry and trade for the urban populations, plus everyone wasn’t always dying of incomprehensible sicknesses or meaningless wars.  If you need proof, there’s this:  Europe’s population was larger in the High Middle Ages than it would be again until Charles Dickens was walking the streets of 19th Century London.

Central to this forgotten golden age was water.   If you’re anything like me, your image of a medieval city’s river is not a place where you’d like to take a dip.  But if we peek over the top of our progressivist sunglasses, the view changes.

Nearly all of Europe’s High Middle Age cities were built on rivers.  On the outskirts of town, watermills rose to mill grain that came from the era’s warm and dependable summers.  Inside the cites, the old grid of Roman roads was transformed into channels and canals, carrying quick-moving water through the cities to artisans who practiced the “river trades.”

The craftsmen responsible for working in wood, metal, ceramics or hides used very little water in their work.  But the new kid in town and the engine of prosperity for Northern France (where we set our story) was fabric made from sheep’s wool — and this needed abundant water.

Northern France was renowned for the quality of its fabrics and individual cities became known for specific colors and textures.  These better, more beautiful fabrics were the result of improved looms and better ways of cleaning, thickening and dyeing the wool.  But they were also a result of the water.  It turns out that the chalk landscape of Northern France produced highly mineralized waters and the fabric makers learned the subtle art of using the different rivers to produce a spectrum of unique and precious colors.

But the rivers were also the site of their industry, with all its cleaning, processing and dyeing.  It should have been an environmental disaster, but it wasn’t.  Partly, this was because the chemistry of the rivers and fabric manufacture worked together to change the pH of the rivers, thus preventing bacteria from proliferating.  At the same time, the alum and tartar that was used in the dyeing process caused solids to precipitate out of the water (a technique still being used in the 20th Century purification plants) leaving the water clear and harmless.

What’s more, the different river crafts were carefully sited to not only avoid interfering with one another, but also to actually benefit from the waste products of the next industry upstream.  So, glovemakers, skinners and curriers tended to set up shop just downstream of the dye works to take advantage of excess alum in the water, which helped cure hides.   Next down the river were the tanneries, which had to be sited below the dyers so the tannin from their tanning ditches didn’t affect colors.  Below of the tanneries, we’d find the slaughterhouses.  Now, since very little of any slaughtered animal went unused, there wasn’t much biowaste, but what little existed was effectively neutralized by the constant flow of tannin from the tanneries.

Additionally, there was what we’d call environmental regulation to protect water quality: privies were outlawed on the river and stiff fines would punish, for instance, a fuller who threw waste ashes into the stream.  Proof of the efficacy of the whole system could be found downstream of it all, where fish ponds — the medieval version of freshwater aquaculture — continued to churn out fish for Friday, unharmed by the industrial operations upstream.

It was remarkable, actually.  Operating without the benefit of science but instead depending on a keen sense of observation, these cities created productive synergies much like those which occur in nature, a near-closed system of production.  What they achieved and sustained for a couple centuries is something that we moderns have not been able to replicate in any meaningful way, in spite of many whole-hearted efforts.

But in the end, it didn’t last, and what’s more, it collapsed into its diametric opposite.  First, the Great Famine struck in 1315-17, devastating much of Europe.  Then, succession struggles in the French royal families metastasized into the Hundred Years’ War (really one-hundred and twenty) and to top things off, the Black Death showed up and stayed for the next three centuries.

Needless to say, city life changed and that change started, again, with water.

The canals and channels around the cities were widened into defensive moats.  The flowing waters needed by the makers of fine woolens and which kept the cities clean were now replaced with slow, stagnant, stinking water.  The impeded river fanned out around the city walls, converting the edge of town into a swamp.  The bright and clean(ish) cities became dank and soggy.  Air, buildings and ground were pervaded with unceasing wet, the waste of the city trapped with nowhere to go.

The craftspeople adapted.  Linen, always a part of things, now became dominant.  The key process in making linen from flax is retting — the soaking of the flax stems in water.  The goal here is to rot away the stem, leaving only the weave-able fiber.  In one way, it’s quite clever, using microorganisms to do the work in linen that people had to do when working with wool.  But the downside is that the retting ponds and tanks befouled the water in a profound way, sickening anyone unfortunate enough to drink it, and killing fish swimming in it.

Linen was best woven in dank places.  The workshops of linen and cotton spinners were banked into the damp earth, or completely entombed in moldering basements.  What’s more, linen was harder to dye than wool, and demanded vile and toxic methods.

Leather, too, rose in importance, particularly because all those soldiers needed flexible armor.  The benign alum which had previously been used for tanning was now scarce, a victim of war-wrecked trade routes.  In place of alum, dog- and chicken-shit was used, at a ratio of four buckets of excrement to one bucket of water, which were all poured into a tank and then mixed by the exertions of a tannery worker, who would march back and forth in the sludge, while adding hot water and then finally the hides.  How bad was it?  Commenters of the time mentioned that horses would stop in their tracks and refuse to pass in front of such establishments.  You can imagine the occupational hazards.

Paper, quickly rising in demand with the invention of the printing press, was also produced in a hair-raising fashion — fermented urine was used as linen rags were hot-rotted in tanks before being ground to pulp in mills.  And then there was saltpeter.

This stuff, a mixture of nitrates, was the dominant ingredient in a something new and increasingly important on the European scene — gunpowder.

So where do we mine saltpeter?  In the words of the historian of urban waterworks, André Guillerme, “in humid places subjected to the putrefaction of excrement,”  So, stables, sewer ditches, ruins, cess pits, garbage… in short, all those things that set dressers add to the medieval movies were not just crap, they were how the key element of warfare was being manufactured day by day.  In other words, the firepower of the state was totally dependent upon putrefaction in its cities.  French kings commissioned corps of saltpetriers, who were authorized to go into anyone’s house, basements, cellars, lands to collect the precious “crusts” of saltpeter.

What’s important to understand (and impossible to understand) is that the ubiquitous rot and decay wasn’t a problem for the citizens of these cities.   All of this — the stench, the muck, the blood the barber surgeons displayed outside their doors, the piles of excrement that the weavers lined the entryways of their establishments with, the barrels the dyers put out collect the urine of passers-by — all of this was seen as incipient wealth.

How to interpret this deathlessly repellent society?  In one way, what they did was fiendishly clever.  Trapped in an environment ravaged by war, plague and climate disruption, the craftspeople of Europe found a way to keep life going by turning the sewage, waste and stinking waters of their fortress cities into silver and gold.  Lacking almost anything, they created a “fungal economy” which powered itself and its processes through fermentation and biomass, and they did it for longer than the United States has been a nation and, let us not forget, enabled the good parts of the Renaissance.  It’s remarkable and sickening, both literally and figuratively.

In the era that came after — the era we still inhabit — the fermentation engine of economy was replaced by a chemical engine.  It must have seemed like an astonishing leap forward into modernity, the way all that rot was displaced by the controlled and man-made work of chemistry.  I mean, what a relief to not have to spend your days literally wading through shit for fun and profit.

But though this new mode was less pestilential, it turned out that man-made processes were more destructive than the natural processes harnessed by the Age of Putrefaction.  As an example, you, me and everyone you know — as well as any polar bears, sea turtles, dolphins, eagles, tigers, etc that you might encounter — has the 3M-invented chemical C8 in their bloodstream.  It’s a carginogen and toxicant and it, as far as we can tell, never breaks down and it’s pretty much impossible to avoid because you find it in both breast milk and umbilical cord blood.  On a bigger scale, we all know what petroleum chemistry has done to the well-being of Gaia.

That’s a little bit ironic and not a bit funny, because the Putrefaction Economy only came into being because of climate.   The trigger of the collapse of the High Middle Ages into the mire of the Renaissance, was the Little Ice Age, which wiped out the dependable warm summers and unleashed centuries of suffering.  It’s a sobering analog for a culture with its own destabilized climate.

What strikes me about the inhabitants of the Renaissance is the unutterable grimness of their world.  Life was hard, disgusting, unfair and short.  Surviving to adulthood was rare.   And you have to think that the embrace of decay as a means of production came from inescapable reality that everyone you knew and cared for could just as easily be rotting next week.

Their only consolation (if that’s the word) was the notion of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death.  This began as a biblical allegory about the fleetingness of earthly vanities.  But it took on a life of it’s own, turning into a genre of art and finally a mindset.  The long-suffering ordinary people of Europe found a mordant satisfaction in the notion of Death as the great leveler, coming to lead the kings and princes, popes and generals into the land of the dead.  There was a pitch-black humor to this, and it’s not hard to understand.  Who could avoid schadenfreude when dreaming of the day when the lords who lorded it over yourself would get the same treatment that you always had coming?

It’s my sense that once the early moderns found an exit from the Putrefaction Economy, they ran through the gateway and bricked it up behind them.  But I sometimes wonder if the memories of those first refugees, the ones who could remember the bad old days, still lingers in a sort of cultural sub-conscious.  It would explain our societal bio-phobia, our clinging insistence that things are always getting better and that we (a) have all the answers and (b)  are separate from nature.  If there’s an opposite to the Danse Macabre, our death-denying culture is it.

Or at least, it’s supposed to be, even if there are times when I wonder if it’s really an epochal kind of denial.  After all, consider the signifiers of wealth and success.  Big houses, big cars, private jets… you don’t have to squint hard to see that the excrement of all these tokens of wealth is making our shared environment just as lethal as the hoarded crap and offal did to 1500s France.  Looked at in the right light, it’s uncannily similar, the same gig with better optics, a costume ball version of the Danse Macabre.

But the right light is never around, and that’s a problem, because the Putrefaction Economy has lessons for us if we can accept nature as a partner, never mind that she is both midwife and undertaker.  The scale of the mess we’ve made is going to require more than we are capable of, will require that we ally ourselves with the power of the world we’ve done our best to tame, or perhaps just kill.

Approaches like carbon farming have the promise of operating at the global scale it will take to slow the runaway train.  But there’s a palpable reluctance to place our trust or destiny in any process that we don’t feel a sense of control over.  So the 1950s-style geoengineering fantasies are trotted out, one after another, each with a tech billionaire behind it, and each oblivious to the fact that while we may have started this, it is now bigger than we are.  Now, only mom can help, once — and if — she gets done with the whupping.

So back to the ham in the oven and instructions that we follow, never mind that their origin is somewhat unclear and the benefit uncertain.  It’s going to take some serious reconciling of our self-image when we discover that the reason we still cut the ends off the ham is because, long ago, the ham didn’t fit in the pan.


Reference:  All of this unknown history comes to me from the strange, remarkable and obscure tome The Age of Water:  the Urban Environment in the North of France, A.D. 300-1800 by André Guillerme. 


Gluttonous Detail of The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch
Medieval Weaver by Hans Splinter
Roasting Hams by Filip
Medieval Tatting by Hans Splinter
Danse Macabre by Renzo Dionigi